The Dice, The Dice, Oh, Lord, the Dice!
I must begin with the most important difference: The role (roll?) of chance in the DCC RPG magic system. Those already familiar with my work know that I love dice and the chaos they bring to this game, for good or for ill. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the magic system.
Scaled Randomization of Spell Results
First of all, unlike D&D and its various clones, casting a spell doesn't succeed automatically. And, even if it does succeed, saving throws are still possible. DCC RPG creates the possibility of spell failure through the Spell Check mechanic. Here, the wizard rolls a d20, modified by Intelligence and by Caster Level. At the lower levels, the caster must achieve a "12" result on the die roll for a bare success. Higher results, as I'll discuss presently, mean better (more powerful) outcomes. At higher levels, the caster must achieve higher results for the bare success (18 for 5th level spells). This sort of scaling of the randomized results makes it easier for high level wizards to succeed with lower level spells, but preserves the difficulty logically following from the idea that it is a higher level spell.
Every Wizard is (potentially) a Nuke
Even more interesting, even a low-level wizard is capable of amazing successes. For example, a first level wizard could, with an 18 Intelligence, achieve a result of up to 24 on a spell check roll. Let's look at Magic Missile.
With a "12" result (bare minimum success) he or she would get the following result:
The caster throws a single missile that does 1 point of damage. He must have line of sight to the target. The missile never misses, though it may be blocked by certain magic (e.g., magic shield).With a "24" result (maximum without Spellburn or Luck Burn), he or she would get this:
The caster throws a single powerful missile that does damage equal to 4d12 + caster level. The missile must be aimed at a single target to which the caster has line of sight, at a maximum range of 1,000’. The missile never misses, though it may be blocked by certain magic (e.g., magic shield). (Both results, DCC RPG Core Rules, p.145)That's a pretty kick-ass result, comparatively, and some of the ones in between are pretty amazing as well.
So, any wizard, from 1st level to 10th, has the potential to demonstrate amazing arcane abilities. He or she also can augment those abilities with sacrifices of various sorts.
Spellburn and Luck Burn
Sometimes, sacrifices must be made to ensure (to the extent possible) success. In DCC RPG, the character can do this by two mechanics: Spellburn and Luck Burn. Spellburn allows the wizard to sacrifice Strength, Agility, and/or Stamina to increase his or her casting roll. Those losses are real, though temporary. The lost abilities can be healed at a rate of one point per day of rest. In the mean time, any rolls relying on those abilities would be at an adjusted modifier for the ability in question. For example, a wizard who burns 3 points of Stamina might go from 10 to 7. The new modifier would be a minus-1. The result would make his or her Fortitude Save somewhat less likely. So, the Spellburn mechanic allows wizards to burn vital essence to achieve supreme results, but at a cost.
Depending on what happens later, early use of Spellburn might turn out to be a very, very bad idea. The wizard may find him or herself handicapped significantly in a save-or-die situation. On the other hand, Spellburn might be the thing that turns the tide when things start to go to shit. This, I must say, is one of the best things that this approach makes happen: The noble sacrifice of the wizard can turn a can't-miss TPK into a resounding victory for the party. The wizards Formerly Ian and Jerkal the Blazin' (RIP) have provided good examples of that, in the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign.
Also, a natural "1" roll (a fumble) while using Spellburn, has additional consequences:
Any magic-user who rolls a natural 1 on a spell check while using spellburn suffers the loss of ability points and the associated corruption (see below), and also loses 1 point of ability score permanently (DCC RPG Core Rules, p. 108).Luck Burn, on the other hand, is something that any character class can use. It is, simply, sacrificing points of Luck (permanently, in most cases) to add to a Casting Roll. Luck gets used in a lot of ways, though different judges may have their own eccentricities in this regard. I, for example, have taken to using Luck to determine who will be attacked first, when there is such a determination to be made. Luck also may be used to see if characters notice things, or whether they find more or less treasure, or whether their mounts will bolt or stand their ground when startled. There are lots of reasons to need high Luck, not the least of which is the Recover the Body mechanic:
If a character reaches a dead ally’s body within one hour, the dead character may make a Luck check when his body is rolled over. On a successful check, the dead character was badly injured but is not permanently killed, and the ally is able to keep him alive. The “dead” character was simply knocked out, stunned, or otherwise incapacitated. (DCC RPG Core Rules, p. 93)With a low Luck score, the chances of surviving a Recover the Body check decrease. Low Luck can mean you are Dead, Dead, Dead, pal. Tear up that character sheet, buddy. Better luck with your wizardry next time, champ.
Spell Failure and Spell Loss
When the casting roll doesn't succeed, there are a couple of different things that can happen. The first is simple failure. The spell didn't have an effect. On top of this, the caster will usually lose the use of that spell. This is about the same thing that happens in the "traditional" Vancian spell casting. You use it, you lose it. In DCC RPG, however, the caster may Spellburn to keep a spell that has been lost via a failed casting roll. "If a wizard expends a lost spell’s level in ability score points, he can cast the spell as if he still had it. For example, a wizard could burn 2 points of ability scores to cast a level 2 spell he had lost for the day" (DCC RPG Core Rules, p. 108). Spellburn, though, as I've already suggested, has its own associated problems.
Misfires and Corruption
One of the things I love to see as a DCC RPG judge, is a natural "1" result on a Casting Roll. This means that something fun is probably going to happen. If it does, the wizard (and his or her party) may find themselves, as the bard said, totally fucked.
The wizard in question must make a roll to determine what happens on a natural "1" result. A misfire is an unintended effect. On a Sleep spell, for example, the misfire might result in the wizard (or entire party!) being put into a magical slumber. A Magic Missile might result in untargeted creatures (including the wizard) getting hit by the spell.
Misfires are fun. Misfires can be hilarious. I love, love, love misfires. Then again, I rarely play wizards.
Corruption is another matter entirely. Corruption is when the spell has the unintended effect of altering the wizard. It also, sometimes, could end up altering others in the area of effect of the corruption. In a word, if you mess around with magic, Son, don't be surprised if you get bit. By a viciously toothed maw. The maw that just appeared on your forehead. Look at the little children run away from the hideous freak wizard. Look at the villagers with their torches and pitchforks. And, Lo! Is that a hangin' tree? Is that a rope? Run, wizard, run!
Corruption is also fun. Yay, corruption!
Finally, wizards have access to supernatural patrons, and these patrons also can grant the wizard new spells (and new corruption results--i.e., "patron taint"). This unnatural congress will (of course) cost the wizard. One doesn't traffic with Angels, Daemons, and Beings Between without an associated risk that it will cost, and maybe cost more than one can bear.
The wizard will rack up obligations to his or her patron(s). The wizard be corrupted into the patron's image. The wizard may, ultimately, become puppet to the patron, with all that implies. These are not nice people. They want just (or even unjust) recompense. They will have it, whether or not the wizard can bear it.
Wizards, of course, are not the only spell casters in the game. Elves function pretty much as wizards do. Clerics, though, have another system entirely. They don't have spell misfires or corruption. They accrue Deity Disapproval. Such disapproval may obligate the cleric (as to a patron) to accomplish particular goals for the deity. It may strip the cleric of particular powers, or make it more difficult to access them.
I will not, at this time, go into the disapproval mechanic for clerics. It's beyond the scope of the current post.
DCC RPG's magic system, while ostensibly Vancian, takes "Vancian" to mean something different than D&D did with its magic system. In fact, one could argue that the DCC RPG magic system is far more explicitly Vancian than the D&D counterpart. Overall, I think it's my favorite system of the two. I embrace the risks and rewards. I like the way that supernatural patrons are incorporated. I appreciate the corruption rules that change the wizard in manner and/or appearance. These features, among others, make the DCC RPG "Vancian" magic system a close approximation of what is suggested by the Vancian literature.